When we walk out of the valley at the end of each stint I’ve noticed some things about how the surrounding community of San Miguel looks at us “jungle folk”. They think we’re all crazy! I’ve had my legs pointed to about every time I talk to a San Miguel community member from the sweet older librarian (Miriam) to a little girl that helped me on the day of the river cleanup. They ask what happened to me and if I’m tired. They wish me great luck when I leave to hike back. They stare at my cuts and bruises acquired from daily work and 4th of July parties. They’re basically wondering why in the hell I would want to walk up and down at least five steep hills in order to live in the middle of nowhere, aka Basecamp, aka los Tres Brazos, aka los Tigres (both of these refer to the rivers that intersect near our camp).
Early on, when I would arrive in San Miguel after our hike out of the valley I’d ask if there was a word for “hiking” or “to hike” in Spanish, but no one could tell me anything different than “caminar” to walk. It seems to me that Panamanians don’t really hike unless they have to. In light of Ecotourism and Kalu Yala this may present some problems getting Panamanian customers to want to visit such an “Americanized” outdoor experience. Hiking in general is an interesting concept. When did the idea of walking up difficult terrain for pleasure first take root? And why does hiking capture the amount of tourists it does in the US, Australia etc? This is just one of many thoughts I’ve had circling in my head the past few days on two of the longest hikes I’ve ever been on.
The first was an adventure I went on with Austin, Aaron, and Jamie up the tributary near Ramon’s house that leads into the Iguana River. We were instructed to try and find the source of the tributary and collect bugs and things for science. At about 8 a.m. we crossed a barbed wire fence and in no time were in primary forest. We began clamoring up rocks in and around the trickling water of the tributary. I jumped across one rock a little too excitedly and fell stomach first into a round river rock. Luckily the boys were too far ahead to take notice. I saw birds, plants, and bugs that could only be found in such an untouched rainforest. One bird in particular looked as though it was straight out of the movie Avatar. We spent an uncomfortable amount of time machete-ing uphill through dense vines and plants after the gully that had been the tributary ran dry. It was pouring rain and I was using all my strength to balance on the dirt-covered hillside, meanwhile moving upwards slowly, all the while avoiding biting ants. Then, to our relief we came up on a trail. It went up, up, up the mountainside until it reached the driveway of a Campesino’s house. We inspected it from afar then went further up the mountain. We eventually found a sign for the outer limits of Chagres National Park. The first one we found was so old we thought we uncovered a secret hatch to another world.
After a long day we pitched our tent, collected some rainwater from the house we found (thanks man, sorry we couldn’t ask first), and made a fire to cook our camping food on. It was a day long hike that’s left a vividly positive mark on my memory.
This past weekend I went on another epic hike in Boquete. Jill, Hattie, Aaron, Jordan and I hiked up Volcán Baru (11,398 ft), the highest point in Panama. We began hiking at midnight, reached the top around 4:30 am, then ascended the peak as the sun rose. It was beautiful, but the hardest hikes of my life, so far. The steep hike in the dark is what really gets inside your head. A few of us considered turning back, but we didn’t let ourselves give up. When you can’t see anything your body is even more likely to feel how much it’s working in every step, but the top is that much more rewarding. When your standing on the peak looking down at the entire country you can feel the rush of accomplishment and appreciation of the beauty you’re experiencing.